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Kotkaniemi impressed Julien enough to earn the third-line centre spot at training camp and he played a key role in the Canadiens’ beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoff qualifying round, scoring two goals in the four games while providing a physical presence. Kotkaniemi celebrated his 20th birthday on July 6 and appears to have become a man on NHL ice — even growing a playoff beard.
“KK has definitely been a difference-maker in this series,” linemate Jonathan Drouin said on a video conference Tuesday. “For me, he just looks more comfortable. I don’t want to say timid when he came in the league, but as with every young guy, you kind of feel it out. You don’t know who to hit, all that stuff. But right now there’s not much thinking in his game, which I like. He’s a big body, he’s using that big body. Obviously, he put a little muscle during those three or four months, which is great for us. If he keeps playing that way, he’s going to have a lot of success in this league. He’s hitting guys, he’s going to pucks, he’s not waiting. He’s not looking around to see who’s going first. He wants to be the first guy on there.”
It would be nice for the Canadiens if some of that rubbed off on Drouin.
“I think KK is playing really good hockey right now,” said Joel Armia, Kotkaniemi’s other linemate. “He’s really physical on the ice and makes good plays. So it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“I like the way KK came back here confident and battling more hard,” teammate Phillip Danault added. “He understands a lot of things I think (from being) in the AHL (this) season and he’s confident now.”
The Canadiens have been weak down the middle for so many years it’s hard to count. But the future is looking much brighter thanks to Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, who had replaced Danault on the No. 1 line between Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher by the end of the Penguins series.
Growing up in the NHL isn’t easy, but it’s certainly interesting to watch.